Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Growing up into God

This sermon was given by Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, February 8, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

If we were living in biblical Palestine, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you. I’d be dead. I probably would have died at the age of eighteen, when I had an emergency surgery to remove a massively infected wisdom tooth after twenty hours of antibiotics squeezed in just before a blizzard. Or perhaps I would have died a little earlier, when I was seven years old and had my tonsils removed after two years of escalating strep infections, each held off for a while with stronger and stronger antibiotics. No antibiotics, no modern surgery, no Greg.

Most of you would probably have similar stories, in one way or another. Life expectancy at birth in ancient Rome, was about twenty-five to thirty years. Half of children didn’t making it past the age of ten. Once you had escaped childhood, you could reasonably hope to live to about forty-five or fifty —less for women, who ran a high risk of dying during childbirth; less for everyone during times of war and rebellion; and, generally speaking, not very high in a world wracked by famine and plague.

You can see why whole cities came flocking to Jesus. In our Gospel reading for today, we see examples of physical and mental healing drawing in increasing crowds. What’s most interesting to me, though, isn’t what Mark says Jesus does here. It’s what Jesus doesn’t say he’s here to do.

Let me explain. The Gospel reading for today breaks down into three short episodes, picking up shortly after the demonic fight scene we heard last week, a week later in our lectionary but only a few hours in the story. Later in the afternoon on the same day as this opening battle, Jesus goes to Simon and Andrew’s house and heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Hearing that she has a fever, Jesus takes her hand and raises her up. He raises her up, foreshadowing how Jesus himself will later be raised up, in the resurrection—not from the brink of death but from beyond it. Mark uses the very same verb. The fever leaves her, and she begins to serve them. (If it troubles you, by the way, that the one, unnamed woman in the story is healed in order to serve the men, good. You’re not alone. Hold that thought for a few minutes.)

Then just after sundown, the whole city comes to him, and he heals many who are sick or possessed by demons. In Mark’s gospel, these demons are mostly associated with what we would probably now diagnose as mental illnesses of various kinds: powerful supernatural forces seemingly external to our own selves that control our actions in ways that strip us of our dignity. In Greek literature the demons are semi-divine creatures, between humans and the gods. This builds a parallel structure: demons, pagan demi-gods possessing individuals; the Roman Empire occupying the Jewish homeland; and the powers of evil, sin, and death embodied in the character of Satan corrupting God’s whole creation. And so it’s unsurprising that the monotheistic Jewish authors of the New Testament uniformly have Jesus triumphing over demons, casting them out of Jewish bodies and out of Jewish land. And all this combined with real physical healing in a world where you only had a fifty-fifty chance of becoming a teenager.

So Jesus is a hero. He’s overturning the powerful forces that are holding down his people: sickness and death, demons and false gods—and by extension, the crowds hope as they wait for their Messiah—Rome and its armies. Jesus comes into a town and all other powers are cast down.

And then, a few hours later, he goes out to a quiet place to pray. The disciples hunt for him, trying to find the man everyone’s looking for, to bring him back to heal more people. And he turns away.  “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he says, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38 NRSV). I said before that this reading fascinates me not for what Mark says Jesus does there—healing and casting out of demons—but for what Jesus doesn’t say he’s there to do: healing and casting out demons. Let us go elsewhere, not in order that I may heal the people; not in order that I may cast out demons, but that I may “proclaim the message, for that is what I came out to do.”

So what does that mean? The phrase “proclaim the message” is one Greek verb, κήρυσσω kēryssō. Although it’s occasionally translated as “preaching”, its sense is not primarily teaching moral behavior, or telling strange parables, or discussing and interpreting holy texts, but rather “proclaiming” as in heralding: announcing, declaring, making known and, in a sense, making real the good news. Just as when Neil Armstrong, in that iconic image of the moon landing, plants a flag in the moon, it’s a statement that “the United States of America are here,” when Jesus goes from town to town “proclaiming the message” it’s a statement that “the kingdom of God is here.”

I’m reminded of an analogy from the Egyptian theologian and bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, writing in the fourth century:
You know how it is when some great ruler comes into a large city and dwells in one of the houses in it; all people consider the city to be honored by this, and enemies and robbers no longer come down to attack it. So it is with the Ruler of All. At his coming into our land, and dwelling in a body like ours, the entire plot of the enemies of humankind has been brought to an end, and the corruption of death, which was formerly powerful against them, has been put away. 
God, dwelling in a human body in Christ and dwelling in the metaphorical “city” of the earth, pushes away all the enemies of her human children. All the loyal subjects of the realm come looking for Jesus—for healing, for teaching, or simply to be in the presence of the conquering king, like kids young and old at the Patriots’ victory parade.

And then he abandons them. There may be a nicer way to put it, but I’m sure that’s how it felt at the time. Jesus leaves behind all those in that city who are still looking for healing, still hoping to be for a moment in his presence, and moves on. Many of us, I suspect, know the feeling. We have wandered through months or years of spiritual desert, with no sense of God’s presence. We have suffered from physical illnesses, or seen loved ones die without the intervention of a sudden, divine cure. We have been crushed by the unrelenting grip of the demons of mental illness; we have lived two thousand years, even in our ostensibly Christian societies, without Jesus our Messiah overturning the structures of oppression, exploitation, and evil. It often seems that the city in which we’re living is not the same one in which the Ruler of All has come to dwell.

If it’s any comfort at all, Athanasius wasn’t among the “fair-weather faithful.” He was born in Egypt in the last few decades of illegal Christianity. His teachers and mentors were slaughtered in the last great gasp of persecution, which was most ferocious in Egypt and Palestine. Athanasius was a bishop for forty-five years, of which he spent seventeen years in five different exiles ordered by four different Roman emperors—all, it’s worth noting, Christians—not counting the six times he fled Alexandria to escape attempts on his life. He truly earned the nickname Athanasius Contra Mundum: “Athanasius Against the World.” And yet he maintained the faith that God, in Jesus Christ, had come to dwell in our earthly city, defeating evil and death.

The line that is perhaps Athanasius’s most famous statement is this: “God became human, that we might become god.”  This is not about becoming gods, in the sense of super-heros with divine powers. It’s about growing up into our nature as human beings created in the image of God. Although we cannot take on what Eastern Orthodox theologians call the “divine essence”—the indescribable and transcendent inner nature of God—we become godly when we participate in the “divine energies,” the work or actions of God. When we love one another, when we comfort one another, when we heal one another, when we pray with one another, we are joining in God’s love, in God’s compassion, in God’s healing, and in God’s prayerful relationship with Godself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the divine community of the Holy Trinity. When we gather to offer our lives and our selves as a sacrifice of thanksgiving at the altar, or when we see the light of God in the eyes of those around us, we are entering into the kingdom of heaven that is veiled just behind everything we see. This is not a restoration to the days of innocence before suffering and death, nor of the days of Jesus’ ministry of miraculous healing. Rather, God comes into the pain and the brokenness of our world, and—having experienced it himself at its very worst—brings us through it to the other side.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, you see, is the only one who really gets it. If you look through Mark for the moments when he says someone serves Christ—the few times he uses the Greek verb διακονειν diakonein, “to serve,” the source of our modern word “deacon”—it’s never about the male disciples, who are usually looking out for their own status, or disputing among themselves who will get to sit at his right and left sides in heaven. No. It’s the angels, when Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness; it’s Peter’s mother-in-law; it’s—fast-forward fifteen chapters—the women watching at the cross: Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James and Salome, who had followed and served him in Galilee. And, crucially, it is Jesus himself, who says to the disciples: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant [διάκονος diakonos], and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45). Peter’s mother-in-law, the first to serve God in Christ, the first to be deacon to his followers, has shown herself to be great among the disciples.

Jesus has proclaimed the good news: God’s reign is here, God has claimed us for God’s own, God’s flag is planted in the soil of our hearts and of our minds, of our societies and of our world itself. We can choose to participate in that divine life or not; to serve God and one another or to seek our own glory. It isn’t the instantaneous cure we’ve been expecting—if there’s one thing we can say for sure about Jesus, after all, it’s that he rarely does what we’re expecting—but the love, care, and support we show in serving one another are God’s miraculous intervention in our world.

God, the Ruler of All, turns out to be pretty good at delegating—not because God doesn’t care about comforting and healing us, but because God cares even more about giving us the opportunity to grow into our human nature as images of God, by comforting and caring for one another.

“When [the disciples] found [Jesus], they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’” (Mark 1:37–38)


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